WASHINGTON -- The Nationals are shifting to night-time work to replicate what may be coming in just more than a week. Opening Day is creeping, the league is still dealing with stumbling blocks and the defending World Series champions are short key players.
Everyone in the league has dealt with a coronavirus-related setback since “Summer Camp” began July 3. Testing results lagged. Asymptomatic players have tested positive. Large groups -- like the swath of Nationals players from Latin America and the entire Astros pitching staff -- have needed to enter quarantine. Those setbacks can be worked around during practices. Massive problems will exist if they occur in the middle of the season.
A variety of small things are being dealt with while the larger issues are managed. Players are testing masks in the field. They are adjusting to not having protein bars around, not spitting, carrying around their own bag of baseballs. These items are small, and tedious, and resonate as less-than-minor problems in the middle of a pandemic. But, they are part of the new baseball process.
“Um … I think it’s terrible,” first baseman Eric Thames said of the day-to-day with the new protocols. “Not so much the practices, but just, like, the rules we have to follow. We can’t eat protein bars on the bench. We can’t celebrate with our teammates. Even on a ground ball, usually you throw the ball around the infield, but you can’t have more than two guys touch a ball.
“So rules like that are annoying. But you have to do it to keep everybody safe and be able to play in a few weeks.”
One celebration in play: the helmet tap. Jake Noll executed it over the weekend after hitting a home run. He and his teammate botched it at first, almost appearing to have forgotten that was the new plan, before clanging the top of their helmets together with extended arms.
Ghost around-the-horn sessions are in play, too. Following a strikeout, the entire infield goes through the process while the catcher throws the ball lightly back to the pitcher. If the ball is coming out of play -- which is often -- the infield will execute a real around-the-horn session.
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Pitchers are coming into their regular entrance music: ‘Seven Nation Army’ for Stephen Strasburg, ‘Still D.R.E’ for Max Scherzer, the profanity-laced, heavily-edited ‘Who am I’ for Javy Guerra. Music is briefly played between innings. A giant clock is all the scoreboard shows.
What is much harder to track remains significantly more problematic. When players go home, the expectation is they will remain there. They are part of the honor system. The outcome of the season may be dependent on how well they participate.
“None of us want to get it,” Stephen Strasburg said. “Naturally, we want to avoid large crowds and being in situations that might get us exposed to it. I’m sure if you ask a lot of guys around here, when it’s the middle of the season, it’s like clockwork. You go home when you’re done, and you come back the next day. It’s not like you’re spending a lot of time doing things out around town.
“It’s a crazy time right now, and if we can go out there, provide some relief for the fans, something fun for them to watch on TV, that’s the big purpose here.”
More than a week of workouts are over. Just more than a week remains before games begin to count in this 60-game experiment. Fits and starts seem inevitable throughout the season. New ways to celebrate are coming into place, old ways to act are being pushed out. And whether it can all be held together for months remains in doubt.
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